Smokey Joe’s Cafe
This summer’s final Music Circus show, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, is framed around several dozen Leiber and Stoller hits from the 1950s and early ’60s, ranging from anthems like “On Broadway” and “Stand By Me” to novelties like “Love Potion No. 9.”Smokey Joe’s doesn’t presume to have a plot, though each three-minute song becomes a vignette, featuring men and women with attitudes, not names. The show originated as a long-running revue some 30 to 40 years after these songs topped the pop charts. Later it became casino entertainment, and it’s still got some of that feel.
Smokey Joe’s has some great, durable tunes, and this production is well-performed by a likeable cast (tall Inga Ballard and not-so-tall Darryl Jovan Williams in particular). Director Barry Ivan, lighting designer Pamila Gray, costumer designers Steven Howard and Bob Miller, and the stage crew use every trick in the book to amplify the mood of each number.
Many good tunes feature a black-male vocal quartet, based on the gospel style that launched Sam Cooke as a star in the ’50s. There are also effective blues numbers written for a strong black woman, including “Hound Dog” as originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton (before Elvis got his hands on it). This is interesting because Leiber and Stoller were white kids barely out of their teens when they wrote most of this material.
Though unassuming and playful, Smokey Joe’s is not a full-service musical, and some novelties, like “Little Egypt,” haven’t aged well. People don’t light up in cafes (or theaters) anymore—at least not in California—so the smoky atmosphere is simulated with safe-and-sane stage fog, which doesn’t quite go with the blues.
The next songbook show—Movin’ Out, based on Billy Joel tunes— arrives on September 27, courtesy of the Broadway Series.